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Dad, take a hike

It's unusual for families to spend months together, hiking dozens of miles a day as they inch up the West Coast toward Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail. The 2,663-mile trail is mostly populated by men in their 20s and 30s who set out on their own.

But Don Krebs is not your ordinary guy.

Since 2004, Krebs, 60, has been trekking sections of the PCT with his three children. Daughter Katherine was only 13 the first time. Last week, when she hiked into Ashland with her dad, she was in between college courses she's taking in Scotland.

"Humans are meant to walk together. That's how we communicate in a lot of ways, walking side by side," says Krebs, a psychologist by training who lives in Bellevue, Wash. "You're carrying 30 pounds on your back and you have to solve problems together. Kids learn self-reliance, and the outdoors is a place for bonding."

Experts agree hiking creates bonds unlike other activities. It requires that you to pace yourself to stay together, agree on when to stop and start up again, and offers uninterrupted hours to talk or be silent together.

One of the most famous families to hike the entire PCT is the Chambers-Egberts of Sunol, Calif. Barbara Egbert, a journalist whose trail name is "Nellie Bly," wrote the book "Zero Days" about spending six months on the PCT in 2004 with her husband, photographer Gary Chambers ("Captain Bligh"), and their then 10-year-old daughter, Mary ("Scrambler").

Although no demographic statistics are kept on people who apply for long-distance hiking permits, Jack Haskel of the Pacific Crest Trail Association says is it rare that families walk long stretches of the trail. "It's common to see families on parts of the trail," he says, "but it is quite unusual to see long-distance hikers walking with their families."

Krebs has hiked about 560 miles of the PCT over nine years with all or some of his children: Katherine Ellsworth-Krebs, 22, Aaron Krebs, 27 and Mike Ellsworth, 32. Krebs' wife of 35 years, Shanae Ellsworth, supports them on the PCT from the sidelines by taking them to trailheads and picking them up.

The family's collective trail name is "EK5," a short nod to each of the parents' last names, Ellsworth and Krebs, and the five family members.

A seasoned hiker, Krebs compares the seemingly endless PCT to an accordion: Everybody moves at their own pace. Some people are alone at times, but then they gather temporarily at campsites or trail towns before spreading out again in ones, twos or threes.

The same thing happens to his family, as they go off to build their careers. But hiking always brings them back together again.

"We have memories that will hopefully last a lifetime," says Krebs, who remembers hiking with his parents and five siblings. "With any luck I will get to hike with my grandchildren and help them learn the freedom of the hills like I learned from my parents."

On Aug. 18-23, the "EK5" team plans to attempt their last, unhiked Washington segment, 120 miles from Stevens Pass to Rainy Pass.

But on this most recent segment, Shanae Ellsworth dropped her husband and only their daughter at the Seiad, Calif., trailhead on Sunday, July 29. Over 3 1/2 days, the two hikers encountered hotter, drier weather than they had experienced before, and they worried about their water sources.

Another surprise: California cows graze on the trail at 6,000 feet. "The cowbells sounded like Tibetan temple bells in the distance, and for a few days we could not see them or know what was causing the sound," recalls Krebs.

This time, the duo packed lighter, went without a stove or coffee, started earlier (before 6 a.m.), ended later (at dusk), and hiked more miles each day (an average of 20 miles). Each night, they recuperated by sleeping with their feet uphill.

On Thursday of last week, the father and daughter arrived at Callahan's Mountain Lodge, about 400 feet from the PCT, with the help of a shortcut. A dozen "thru hikers," who are tackling the entire trail from the U.S.-Mexico border to Canada, had their single tents set up on a grassy lawn.

Callahan's owners Ron and Donna Bergquist let hikers camp on the property, shower, do their laundry and hang out in the hotel, especially in a TV room where a documentary of the PCT is constantly played. The cost: $25 a night.

Instead, Krebs and his family booked rooms and relaxed in the wood-walled dining room. The next morning, his daughter was back on the trail, on her way to walking 235 miles farther north by herself, while he was waiting for a ride to the Medford Airport to fly back home.

His daughter had arranged for M. Kim Lewis, who owns Main Street Tours, a company listed with the Pacific Crest Trail Association as a resource for hikers going to entry points and leaving access points, to pick up Krebs at Callahan's and get him to the airport in time for his flight.

"My kids organize these trips now. It's neat to see them step up," said Krebs, sitting with his backpack on steps outside of the mountain lodge. He paused to pull back his emotions. "Sorry, but I just said goodbye to my daughter."

In a few hours, he says, he would be flying over the Cascade Mountains, where he could look down and only imagine where his daughter was hiking.

When the time came to leave the lodge, tour operator Lewis made a request to Krebs. "Do you think it's OK if we first drop a few of these hikers off in Ashland?"

Lewis pointed to a handful of hikers who could not squeeze into Ashland trail angel Sue Yeoman's Ford Mercury SUV, which was already filled with guys whose trail names are "Steamer," "Memphis," "Copernicus," "Goose," "Texas Chill," and one woman, Nancy Hall of Waynesboro, Va., who doesn't yet have a nickname.

Krebs looked at the remaining hikers, who were about the same age as his children.

"Sure," he said softly. Then he waited inside Main Street Tours' van as one guy ran back to retrieve a sock he'd left at the communal washing machine.

Later that day, Lewis would pick up a father and son in Medford and drive them to Fish Lake to start their journey together.

"PCT hikers are unique from our other clients who are going to Crater Lake, wine country or on birding tours," he says, "because of their dedication and ultimate commitment to a full nature experience in the wilds."

Some, like the "EK5" hikers, even share it with their loved ones.

Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com.

Waiting for a ride into Ashland are PCT hikers John Twillmann, Nancy Hall, Jameson Pugh, Tyler Davis, Tim Tache and Tyler Blauvelt. - Kayla Young